President Donald Trump and the NFL were supposed to be friends.
Recall the White House lawn on a sunny April afternoon when Trump welcomed the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots; he and owner Robert Kraft fawned over each other like high school sweethearts. “A very good friend of mine for over 25 years, a man who is as mentally tough and hardworking as anybody I know, launched a campaign for the presidency against 16 career politicians,” Kraft crowed. “He persevered to become the 45th president of the United States.” Trump returned the favor, calling Kraft a “very special and talented man.”
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Kraft wasn’t the only one: six more league owners gave Trump a million dollars. One of them, Jets boss Woody Johnson, is now the ambassador to the United Kingdom.
The union made sense. Trump, like the NFL’s power brokers, was an uber-wealthy, white man—and he promised lower taxes. And his base—overwhelmingly white and conservative—overlapped with the league’s fan base. Indeed, the two were simpatico.
Then came Friday night.
The president was in Huntsville, Alabama giving a perfectly Trumpian rally speech—he hit the media; he tepidly endorsed Senate candidate Luther Strange, ostensibly his purpose for being there—and then he turned his attention to the NFL, and the ongoing protests of players kneeling for the national anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when someone disrespects the flag,” Trump began, to the delight of the crowd. “To say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now? He’s fired.’”
Trump said it again, for emphasis. “He’s fired!” He paused, he shook his head, he stalked the stage. “USA!” the crowd chanted. As if to twist the knife deeper, Trump shrugged and said of the owners, “They’re friends of mine, many of them.”
Who knows how long that friendship will last, especially after Trump then went on to shame the league over low ratings, bemoan rules changes to protect players from injury and encourage the league’s fans to do the unthinkable: boycott. “If you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium,” Trump said. “I guarantee things will stop. …Just pick up and leave.”
The NFL, reeling from declining ratings and an ongoing player safety crisis, was already mired in the political muck. Calls to boycott have come from many on the left recently, angry that Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who started the anthem protests in the fall of 2016, remains unemployed. But now the league has just endured the equivalent of friendly fire—a blistering critique that sounded like he was on the side of his billionaire pals but almost certainly left them cringing with dread at the prospect of a Sunday of sideline sitdowns and wall-to-wall punditry. “He threw his buddies under the bus,” the sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards told me. “And what did he do it for? Some cheap applause in Alabama.”
Trump—both as candidate and president—has relished opining on the myriad political controversies swirling around sports. He has bashed Kaepernick and tweeted about ESPN; when the network’s Jemele Hill called Trump a white supremacist, Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it a “fireable offense” in the White House briefing room. Friday’s foul-mouthed criticism of the players, most of whom are black, and Trump’s subsequent withdrawal of his invite to NBA superstar Stephen Curry’s championship team to the White House (LeBron James responded to that by calling Trump a “bum.”) re-ignited the still-smoldering debate about his equivocations on white supremacy after the Charlottesville violence. The furor was so intense it prompted a statement from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who, without naming Trump, labeled his comments “divisive,” saying they “disrespect” the players and the good work the league does. (By Saturday night, a handful of teams—Miami, Green Bay and San Francisco among them, though not New England—had released their own statements; some named the president, others did not.)
But NFL players were compelled to push back themselves—and much harder. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted, “The behavior of the President is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. If you do not Condemn this divisive Rhetoric you are Condoning it!!” Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron asked pointedly, “Does anyone tell trump to stick to politics, like they tell us to stick to sports?” The Buffalo Bills reportedly called a team meeting to discuss Trump. “He just turbocharged the protests,” Edwards told me. “Every one of the owners in this league can be legitimately asked if they have sons of bitches on their rosters.”
The Trump presidency has been a test for much of corporate America, but the issue facing the NFL is uniquely complicated. As Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant who has worked with more than 20 NFL teams, told me, there are a lot of Americans, including NFL fans, who agree with Trump—at least in principle. “They see these players make a great deal of money and get a great deal of adulation,” he said. “They’re playing a profession they voluntarily undertake and their lifestyles are based on sacrifices that others made. They don’t want to see them disrespect the flag.”
Who then does the league owe its first allegiance to? The players who provide the entertainment, risking their physical and mental health, or the paying fans who prefer their leisure time isn’t tainted by real world concerns. Moreover, there is a stark racial dividing line between these interest groups. I’ve touted these numbers before, but the demographics paint the league’s Trump problem in stark terms. According to Reuters, more than 83 percent of NFL fans are white and they are more than 20 percent more likely to be Republicans than Democrats. All but one owner is white, too. Eighty percent of the players, meanwhile, are black. And if Trump continues to antagonize players, they will respond. “Let’s take away the one thing that a black man can do,” tweeted Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett Saturday afternoon. “That’ll set em straight. Naw bruh. We diverse. We aren’t just field niggas anymore.” Added Edwards: “The more white versus black Trump can make it, the happier he is,” Edwards said.
Ganis reminded me that Trump has his own personal history with the NFL. In the 1980s, he wanted to buy a team, but was rebuffed and bought a USFL team instead. His imprudent, and self-serving decisions as the owner of the New Jersey Generals led to a humiliating court battle with the NFL, the ultimate demise of the new league and major financial losses for the other owners. The joke here: Trump sure knows how to kill a league. Still, Ganis believed Trump’s calculation Friday was far simpler.
“Politicians know when they say something about the NFL that is controversial that they will get attention,” he said. “Donald Trump likes getting attention.” (It could hardly have been a coincidence that Trump chose to deliver his broadside against the pro game in front of a predominantly white crowd in a football-crazy state where Republican politics is defined by allegiances to some of the best college teams in the nation.)
Ganis acknowledged the looming problem of Trump’s insults and if player protests went beyond silently kneeling. He mentioned the possibility of players leading chants or singing a different song when the anthem was played. Though none of the available evidence suggests that the protests have driven significant numbers of fans away from the NFL, Ganis worried that the more overt actions would, which would in turn force the NFL to crackdown. “The whole thing could snowball,” he said.
But for now, we will wait and see how many players respond Sunday—how they will protest and what they will say. Meanwhile, the group of billionaire NFL owners who threw in with Trump just learned what their loyalty is worth, a little taste perhaps of what Alabama’s beloved son Jeff Sessions is going through. Maybe Trump’ll make it up to them with tax reform.
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